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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Optics of worn chances

Photo exhibition taking place in Donetsk could challenge Kyiv Arsenale
12 June, 2012 - 00:00
Photo by Flavia JUNQUEIRA from the “Horlivka 1951” series
Photo by Richard ANSETT

Foundation “Isolation. Platform for Cultural Initiatives,” based in Donetsk, today is one of the most successful regional organizations that deal with art. The Day already wrote about the exhibition of the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang “1,040 meters beneath the ground,” which became an artistic sensation of the last year. Recently Isolation invited The Day’s reporter to the opening ceremony of the group exposition “Partly Cloudy.”

There were 280 applications from 40 countries submitted to participate in the competition announced by the Foundation last year. Eight finalists were selected according to the recommendations of the famous Ukrainian photo artist, winner of the Hasselblad Award Borys Mykhailov. Photographers Nuno Barroso (Portugal), Marina Black (Russia-Canada), Flavia Junqueira (Brazil), Homer (Sasha Kurmaz, Ukraine), Natalia Pavlovskaya (Russia-Hungary), Oleksandr Strynadko (Ukraine), Marco Citron (Italy), and Richard Ansett (UK) also had been working under the guidance of Mykhailov. Artists spent from four to six weeks in Donetsk: they took photographs, participated in master classes and discussions.

Artists were invited to explore a rather vaguely formulated topic of “Partly Cloudy” on the landscape of Donetsk; landscape is the widest concept here and it includes geographical, social, and cultural aspects. As to the landscape of the exhibition, the most noticeable skill of the curators of the exhibition is knowing how to work with the rooms of the former insulation factory, especially considering that the size of shops-galleries allow choosing original structure of exhibiting for every artist. Another peculiarity is that all the participants of “Partly Cloudy” project have in a certain way inherited Mykhailov’s aesthetics – his principles of spontaneity of impression, attention to margins, kitsch, and naive.



Thus, Kurmaz shows a large photo of an individual character and a scattering of small cards (Mykhailov’s term to denote a photo), which have to characterize the character one way or the other, in curtained booth-boxes. They also added audio: voice recording of the researched object or sounds that are associated with it. However, despite designed tricks, there was left a sad feeling of a never sorted out disorder: there are characteristics, but no characters, there are phrases, but no story. Kurmaz didn’t manage to gather witty scenes into a whole. The same applies to Nuno Barroso: randomly snapping out crazy aborigines, poor interiors of their kitchens, cottages of the new masters of life and another kind of exotics, Portuguese photographer only limited his work to transferring his admiration of this picturesque chaos and substituted anthropology with tourism.

Marco Citron, on the contrary, had everything very well organized; however, it was all too predictable. A dozen of stands with bird-eye view landscapes of Donetsk (trees and pathos buildings) on one side and photographs of the residents of the buildings, which got lost amidst this man-made luxury, on the other side. It seems that Citron took literally the widely-spread statement about the greenest industrial city of the world: green prevails in his works and threatens to flow over the edge of the image – and at the same time all the general plans are viewed as ceremonial greeting cards. The photos of yards could become a counterpart, but things are just as brushed there: the same show off greenery, the same neglect of details, many characters are openly posing. Citizens in works by Citron are just as inexpressive as the high-rise buildings on the other side of the stands – and it’s not that kind of meaningful inexpressiveness which could convey a separate closed (anti)world.

Natalia Pavlovskaya managed to reach exactly such vagueness of meanings. Her nine photographs were enlarged, decorated as banner ads, and hanged on the wall of one of the shops. Flashy on the outside, they are, at the same time, banal to the dizziness: some bear skin on a floor amidst European-style remodeling, plastic wreaths in the bureau of funeral services, mannequin in pseudofolk outfit, happy girl out in the green with a McDonald’s food bag, ordinary Donetsk old man with his grand children walking in park. The artist works with the concepts of mass consciousness of comfortable living and decent death and from these details she grows her own expression of society of cheap spectacle in which we live now.

Another installation by Pavlovskaya, Missing Space 2, can be called the most conceptual of the project. Pavlovskaya just gathered 12 discarded tombstones and organized them on a neat white platform. These are standard Soviet metal obelisks, pretty old, rusty, with stars on top of them, with paint peeling from them – in the place of photographs of the people who died long time ago she put empty frames. The gesture is powerful in itself with the broadest connotations – from classical momento mori and rituals of the past epoch to considering the nature of photography as “fixed memory” – or, alternatively, as a way of getting rid of the memories.

Oleksandr Strynadko is the only resident of Donetsk in the project and in order to achieve the necessary distance he focused on the part of the city, where he has never been to – by the way, Isolation is also located in Budionovks district. The series is called “More Life” (the name of a restaurant that got in one of the photos) and consists of black-and-white images that are exhibited on scattered, stone-like gray pedestals. Strynadko is guided by the abovementioned format of random photo hunt showing all of the district everyday life with drinking beer on sidewalks, drunk singing to accordion, everyday shopping in the stores, and simply doing nothing at the doorstep of the plain houses. Photographer then acts as a researcher with a principle and compassionate look and it is extremely interesting to look at this life “more life” through his eyes.

Several series of the “Partly Cloudy” project can be characterized by nor more, nor less – some metaphysical accents. Marina Black, beginning her work on the series “14 meters to The Daylight surface” focused her attention on her assistant, a local 16-year old girl Nastia and made her the main character of her photographs. Nastia is not shown in the photos in the literal sense – her face does not get into the shot, sometimes her whole figure is vague, sometimes it just an empty abandoned room. The reality of these ruins is illusory, and the incredibly slow time that flows in continuous destruction seems also illusory.

Works by Richard Ansett are exhibited on light boxes in a huge hall that resembles a Catholic cathedral. Four images on one side and six on the other, in the front, center, and altar parts there are three horizontal compositions from the series “Mother and Child.” Ansett took photographs of patients in the hospital garden and separately – autistic children. “Mother and Child” are arranged one by one: baby is lying in the crib and above him there is a simple picture – sign of family comfort, mother is shown with her hand stretched from the right corner of the picture. In contrast, photographs of children and patients were shot with powerful flash light and that is why there is the effect of night background: the heroes step out of the darkness in a frame of color. Ansett achieved the level of expressiveness on these photographs that can be compared with the works by Michelangelo Caravaggio. People in bandages and with casts make an astonishing impression with the combination of dignity and sculptural modeling of bodies. Children with autism turned out the best on his photos. Ansett managed to convey their secret – in his works they look like bearers of inner power that is inherent only to the mythical heroes. Connotation of Baroque painting is strengthened by the general placement of photographs and the shaded atmosphere of the hall. With all the clearness of the form, it is really rather about faith, or even, about the beauty of faith, doesn’t matter whether it’s faith in the higher power or your loved ones.

There was made an exception for Flavia Junqueira and she was allowed to add the works from previous years to photos of Donetsk. She also got to present her works in a separate module – so-called Tea House equipped in the former panel room. The interior is designed in a pseudo bourgeois style: on the walls there are the flower-design wallpaper, glass chandeliers, as if just bought at the reduced price at a Soviet store, are hanging from the ceiling. Photographs of Donetsk combine naive childish kitsch – balloons, toys, mute wearing Mickey Mouse costume – with half-ruined baroque palace of culture in Horlivka. On others photographs the same toys and balloons burst into urban chaos of Brazil. Sometimes there are too many things and they practically absorb the main character in the photo – alter ego of the artist. A thing and a man is the main theme of Junqueira, however she also manages to show the moment when the things get a life of their own, and this, despite the presence of what looks like thoughtless elements, adds some hidden horror to her works.

The organizational success of the “Partly Cloudy” project is just as big as its artistic success. At the time of relative growth of the gallery movement in Ukraine very few manage to correctly combine expositions with exhibition space. Curators of Isolation do this incredibly great. The idea of the project also justified itself: in fact, for a short period of time in Donetsk there was operating a school of photography guided by Mykhailov, which presented at the end a very fine result. Regardless of the degree of talent of individual participants, “Partly Cloudy” project made such a convincing impression of the presence of the modern art that now we can call the new project of Isolation the most distinguished event of the exhibition season along with the Kyiv Arsenale. And, finally, Donetsk amidst the fever of political upheaval and dictatorship of ever Soviet regional princes received probably the most dignified and artistically rich visual display in all the years of independence.

By Dmytro Desiateryk, The Day, Donetsk – Kyiv